Decked out in a Mr. Happy T-shirt, khaki shorts, sandals and a Central Michigan baseball cap turned backward, Kevin Graham lounges in his chair at a Salt Lake City eatery, munching on pizza and laughing, blowing down memory lane, telling his stories. He has more than two decades worth of them, all centered on sports and sports-talk radio.
Now 44, going on 24, Graham knows more about that last subject than anyone else in Salt Lake. Although he’s not a native, he considers Utah his home, having worked here for nearly half his career in three different stints, mixed around places like New York, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Next stop: Boston, where he will run WEEI, home of the Red Sox and one of the country’s legendary sports stations.
His move was a big enough deal in New England that the Boston Herald did a write-up on the change, which was announced on Thursday.
He took the new job because … well, he couldn’t turn it down. “Recognition-wise, it’s one of the top two sports stations in America,” he says. “It’s a monster. It’s too good a job to pass up.”
Say a prayer for Boston sports.
A different KG is coming.
He’ll leave Salt Lake during the first week of September, looking for one more radio station to fix, although in the case of WEEI, landing at fifth overall in the market is more of a readjustment than a complete rebuild.
“I’m excited about it,” he says. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
For Graham, sports radio has always been fun, except for the parts that were hell. Through the years, he’s been repeatedly hired and occasionally fired, brought aboard at major stations and run off at lesser ones. He’s a devoted father who moved his family nine times, and ended up divorced. He’s been an on-air talent and a manager. He’s a gas to be around, and now and again a pain. He’s a perfectionist, and a realist.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that Kevin and I have worked together on the same show twice and we’ve competed against one another once. He’s a close friend who I’ve known for the better part of 20 years.
That’s not the reason I’m doing this column. I’m doing it because most people around here who know of Graham, know him only as a loud voice of strong sports opinion. But he’s more than another on-air knucklehead, like the rest of us, in this market. He’s a programmer who enjoys a lofty national standing as one of the best sports-talk radio minds in the business, and the fact that he’ll become only the second main-floor manager at WEEI, as well as its cluster of networks and No. 1-rated web site, in the past 22 years, is a witness to that.
His career path, though, has been a dream and a nightmare.
It started when he was in the 7th grade, when he decided that he was born to broadcast. As he entered West Bloomfield [Mich.] High School, he bolted straightaway to do play-by-play on the school’s baseball games. When a senior struck out in consecutive at-bats, the freshman barked into the microphone, well within earshot, “And he whiffs again! Can you believe it?” The team started kicking rocks at the young Graham, a harbinger of things to come.
Graham next enrolled at Central Michigan because, he says, it has a great broadcast program and that’s where Dick Enberg went to school. He’s a liar. That wasn’t the real reason. Turned out, CMU had been voted by Playboy as one of the country’s top party schools, and the ratio of women to men on campus was eight-to-one. Graham chuckles about that now. Between parties and, to a lesser extent, classes, he worked as a DJ, hosted university TV studio shows for basketball, called games, hosted a talk show and interned for former Tigers 30-game winner Denny McLain at a Detroit commercial station.
“I was an unpaid intern, and Denny expected me to pick him up a dozen donuts and a case of Diet Coke every morning,” Graham says. “I finally told him I wouldn’t do it anymore, unless he gave me a 20-dollar bill to cover the weekly costs. Denny gave me $10, instead. When I stopped bringing in the donuts, because I didn’t have enough money, he claimed he gave me 20 bucks. He accused me of stealing his money. I told him to f--- off and walked out. McLain later ended up in prison for stealing money out of some company’s pension fund.”
Graham was off and flying.
He went on to work in assorted roles at various news and sports stations in Michigan, including reporting on a story where two hunters shot the same deer at the same time from opposite directions, and then started arguing and shooting at each other on account of the dispute. He quit one job because a minister who owned the station cooked the books before selling it to a buyer who stopped paying Graham because he ran out of money. Kevin landed at another station where he called prep games, parades and … beauty pageants: “Here she comes down the runway, maybe a little bigger than she should be, turns left, smiles, turns right …”
Eventually, the late Chris Tunis hired Graham as a producer at Salt Lake station 570 in the early ’90s, and when the Jazz switched to a new station — KFAN — David Locke and Graham built that sports station from scratch. That’s when I first did a morning show with him.
We busted up laughing every day, and got serious, too. Kevin once told a stubborn receptionist at the office of a listener’s wife who had won a prize that she had to put us through to the woman because “her house is on fire.” He also mistakenly called the Days of ’47 Rodeo the 47 Days of Rodeo. And he passed along the tragic news to listeners that a BYU football player had died in an auto accident on I-15.
He then left to become the program director at a station in Columbus, broadcasting Ohio State games, and supervising Kirk Herbstreit. The ESPN station in Pittsburgh hired him in the same role in 2000, and in 2002, the ESPN station in New York City hired him. There, he found himself negotiating deals with John McEnroe and Tiki Barber as show hosts. Worn out by a daily two-hour commute into Manhattan, and wanting to spend more time with twin daughters, he left that job to go back to Detroit in 2003, where he set the foundation for a station makeover that led to that outfit eventually becoming the No. 1-rated sports station in the nation.
In 2005, he came back to Salt Lake to do afternoon drive with me at 1280 AM The Zone, replacing Craig Bolerjack, who shifted to call Jazz games on TV. Enduring uneven management, after five years, Graham left for Phoenix, where he lasted for only a short span. “I spent 10 months firing other people at the behest of my bosses there — until they fired me,” he says.
Finally, he came back to Salt Lake for a year at KFAN, after the Jazz took over 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone, moving their broadcasts there. And now, the radio nomad moves on, again.
During his time in Utah, Graham molded and remolded sports talk here, the way it sounded, the way it was done, and he says he’ll do the same in Boston. He was an innovator and a lightning rod, once starting a movement called “KWOOF,” an acronym for Keep Women Out Of Football. He bet his life that BYU wouldn’t beat Oklahoma, which it did, causing Bronco Mendenhall to ask for collection on the bet. Graham reneged. He spoke his mind — “It sucks, sucks, sucks, sucks, sucks” — and has the scars to prove it. And he yelled a lot — and got yelled at a lot.
“This is bittersweet,” he says, with a tight grin, the pizza now gone. “I really love it here. I like the people, the market, the passion of the fans. I will always consider Utah my home and I’ll come back here — at least to visit.”
Say goodbye to Kevin Graham, then — and a prayer for Boston sports.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.